The United States gave up control of the Panama Canal in 1999. Trouble was expected but didn’t happen. The Panamanians did a fine job of running the canal operation. They even reduced transit time. We started into the navigational channel at 5 am and exited the canal at 3:20 pm. We had been told to expect a lot of traffic in the locks, but it was a slow day. Because we entered from the Pacific, we traveled mostly northwest.
The Panama Canal was so well built that the original concrete poured without rebar to create the locks in 1915 is still functioning. The expanses of concrete seen at the lock chambers remain the largest concrete structures ever built. They have never failed but have closed down 3 times due to rain, war, and accident. The ubiquitous tugboats that I saw throughout the passage are only used in case of a breakdown or in an emergency. Boats carrying personnel are paddled because engines conk out in rainy climates like Panama’s.
Most of the other large ships we saw in the dark at the beginning of our transit were either waiting to drop off cargo or were ships that had not made a reservation. Non-res ships have to wait for an opening because they have not paid the $35,000 reservation fee. For now, they pass under 2 car-carrying bridges, the Bridge of the Americas and the Centennial, which opened in 2003. The 1st one is on the Pan American Highway, the longest road in the world that begins in Ushuaia, Argentina, and terminates in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It’s about 30,000 miles long but has a gap called Darien between Columbia and Panama.
When the Panamanians took over the operation of the canal in 1999, 9 US military facilities were repurposed. One is now a college and Howard AFB is an airport. Many hotels were built as Panama City was envisioned as a major leisure destination. This has not exactly happened. As Panama City became a kind of a seedier Singapore struggling with crime, a Trump Hotel came and went. It was Trump’s 1st hotel venture outside the United States. The James Bond film Quantum of Solace was partially filmed in Casco Viejo, Panama City’s colonial neighborhood.
One of my vivid memories of this memorable travel day was seeing many small electric mules, those one-car trains on tracks on either side of the concrete locks, pulling gigantic ships through the chambers. We had covered about 50 miles going from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.